Some thoughts on prayer

One of the phenomena in the modern Church is the explosion in the variety of prayer techniques and methods, some of more value than others. Many of these seem to rely on their own books, seminars, workshops, and courses, all of which seem to come at a (sometimes hefty!) price. Indeed it might not be unreasonable to speak of a spirituality “industry”. We have had creation spirituality, centring prayer, workplace spirituality, wymmyn’s spirituality… you could probably fill in more. They come, and many fade away. The authentic and sound endure.

Perhaps one motivation underlying this industry has been the noble desire to bring more Christians to experience the power and the consolation of prayer. However, in so doing the industry has sometimes made the life of prayer an almost frightening prospect for many. No one needs to do a course to pray! With prayer, as with so many things, essentially there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

So maybe we need to re-familiarize ourselves with some fundamentals. St Paul urged the Thessalonians to pray without ceasing (I Thess 5:17). To most people this is a pretty tall order. We have to work for a living, spend time with and care for families and communities, relax a little, clean, eat, sleep… perhaps St Paul was getting carried away with himself. Even cloistered nuns have to do chores at some stage of the day.

First off, we must remember that St Paul was writing to a Church, not to individuals. The Church, as the Body of Christ, is united to Jesus Christ, its Head, who is now at the right hand of the Father, pleading for his people, his Body (see I John 2:1 and Hebrews 7:25). In Christ, as His Body, the Church is thus always before the Father in prayer and intercession. United to Christ, the Church is thus always praying.

If this so, why then would St Paul exhort the Church to constant prayer? Christians, and the Church in general, are not merely passive receptors of God’s grace. We cooperate with God, we act so that through our actions God may act in us – and act not against our grain, but with it. The Church is God’s dearest instrument on earth: while God has spoken and still speaks his Word, it is the Church that proclaims this Word to the nations. God loves the world, and the Church spreads that love abroad throughout the world. Christ our High Priest is constantly praying to the Father for his people and the world, and it is the Church that articulates and anchors this prayer in the world, and distributes its fruit.

The highest activity of the Church in this regard is its offering of the Eucharistic Sacrifice in obedience to Christ’s command. But that is something more than prayer; it is worship, and of the highest form. For now let our focus be more on the role of individuals in the Church’s mission to pray without ceasing.

The Church already has in place the means by which individuals can unite themselves to the unceasing prayer of Christ’s Body. It is the Divine Office, or the Liturgy of the Hours. While clerics and religious are obliged to pray it, it is not restricted to them by any means. It is pre-eminently the prayer of the Church, and is available to all members of the Church to pray. Truly when one prays the Divine Office, one is not praying alone even if physically alone. Those who pray the Office are united with the Church’s great global enterprise of prayer, making the Church-at-prayer locally present and active. It is broken into various “hours”, from the early morning to the night-time. One need not pray it all, just those hours that are practical. It is eminently sound prayer, being mainly a mix of psalms, scripture readings and songs, and intercessions. In it the Word of God sounds with the voice of the Church, and it is a communal voice, all the louder for each new person who joins in with it. There are handy reduced versions of the full Office, such as a volume of Morning and Evening Prayer. But no money need be spent. Websites such as Universalis will allow you to pray the Divine Office at no expense at all.

All round the world someone is praying the Hour of morning prayer, or evening prayer, or prayer before noon, or night prayer. Every hour of every day is being sanctified by prayer somewhere in the world. Each person who prays the Office embodies, both as symbol and reality, the Church always at prayer.

However, God relates to each of us also in a more direct and personal way. Our relationship to Him in the Church must find expression in and be bolstered by our personal relationship with Him. So the Church constantly at prayer will be found also in the personal relationship of the multitude of individual Christians to God, and in particular in an individual’s personal prayer. This personal prayer requires no courses nor skills. There is no one way of doing it, but there are certainly wrong ways of doing it. So what then did Christ teach us about personal prayer:

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.

But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.Pray then like this:

Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
And forgive us our debts,
As we also have forgiven our debtors;
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.

For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
[Matthew 6:5(b)-15]

This is our Lord’s own recommendation for prayer. Truly, if we can say this prayer sincerely and with recollection and attention just once a day, we have prayed well. Of course there is a catch. The proof of our prayer is in our living, as our Lord hints at the end of the passage above. Our prayer to be forgiven will be only as effective as our own forgiveness of others. It is a tough challenge. This is no childish prayer.

It reminds us that prayer is not something divorced from the rest of our lives, nor a discreet compartment within our lives. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2745) quotes the Church father Origen on precisely this point:

He “prays without ceasing” who unites prayer to works and good works to prayer. Only in this way can we consider as realizable the principle of praying without ceasing.

When we let our prayer bear fruit in our actions and our lives, then our actions and our lives themselves become one abiding prayer.

Lastly, one way that really does help anchor prayer in our lives and our living, is to keep God as much in mind as possible. It is hard to sin when you are thinking about God, and talking to him. This is the principle behind the spiritual practice of recollection, or mindfulness of God. It is not the only principle of course: for when we love someone, we constantly think of the beloved and long to be with the beloved. So being “in love” with God is another important principle behind recollection. It does not matter that one does not feel “in love”, for prayer is not about feelings (though positive feelings are often a by-product of prayer). Indeed, the more time we spend with God, the more we recognise his constant presence with us, the more we find that we do, in fact, fall in love with God.

So if I were to recommend one book on prayer, it would be The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence. Editions of this classic abound, and it can be found for free at the link just above, or here, though the online editions do not include his maxims. Br Lawrence, born Nicholas Herman, was a Carmelite lay-brother who lived at a friary of his order in Paris in the 17th century. His work for most of that time was firstly in the kitchen, and then later as a repairman of the friars’ sandals. The book we have today under his name he did not write; rather it is a collection of the recorded spiritual maxims and conversations of Br Lawrence, as well as some of his letters, compiled in a short volume by a priest shortly after his death.

Br Lawrence was no scholar, no expert, not even a priest. His work was menial. Yet his spiritual understanding is as profound as you can find, and as authentic. He expresses something fundamental in Christian spirituality, so much so that the book is considered a classic by Protestants as well as Catholics: no less than John Wesley recommended it. His basic principle is that whatever we do in life, at whatever time, we should do for God and with God himself, consciously and deliberately. By becoming aware that God is indeed present to us (or better, that we are in His presence) we find our work, and every moment of our lives, suffused with new meaning and new purpose. We find help and strength in time of need or temptation, and we find a partner in our joys. By recognising that we are constantly in God’s presence we find that the power of temptation diminishes, that the smallest things have value, and that nothing is unbearable. This is to be in communion with God, a living out of our Holy Communion in the Eucharist.

If heaven is being in the eternal and immediate presence of God, in fullest communion with Him, then Br Lawrence’s way of beginning to be ever more aware of His veiled presence with us now is a superb preparation for heaven. To finish, a quote from his maxims (not found in the online editions) will give you the gist of his way:

The holiest, most ordinary, and most necessary practice of the spiritual life is that of the presence of God. It is to take delight in and become accustomed to his divine company, speaking humbly and conversing lovingly with him all the time, at every moment, without rule or measure, especially in times of temptation, suffering, aridity, weariness, even infidelity and sin.

We must continually apply ourselves so that all our actions, without exception, become a kind of brief conversation with God, not in a contrived manner but coming from the purity and simplicity of our hearts.
[Maxims 6 & 7]

No preparation, course or skill is needed – you can begin right now to pray without ceasing.

Pax!

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